Camping in Big Bear Lake, California

Big Bear Lake, CASituated in the majestic San Bernardino mountains, Big Bear is arguably home to some of the most beautiful alpine scenery in Southern California. Along with camping in Big Bear, the area offers many recreational opportunities to those who want it, from winter snow skiing to summer hiking, biking, and boating. Big Bear is home to numerous campgrounds that accommodate both RV and tent enthusiasts.

As a Southern California resident for 43 years, I’ve had my share of Big Bear camping. It’s just too close and convenient to ignore. Big Bear is an easy 1-3 hour drive from Los Angeles, Orange, and Riverside/San Bernardino counties. So what does Big Bear have to offer in recreational camping? What campgrounds are easiest to get to? Which ones require reservations? Do any of them have RV hook-ups? Read on, discover and learn. Then head on up there and enjoy all that Big Bear camping has to offer.

A Snapshot of Big Bear

Geography – At an average elevation of 7,000 feet, Big Bear sits in a valley with its highest peaks reaching to around 9,000 feet. Its nearby neighbor, San Gorgonio wilderness, is home to the highest peak in Southern California, San Gorgonio mountain at 11,502 feet. Big Bear is reached by three Highway roads: Hwy 18 from the North (Lucerne Valley), Hwy 38 from the South (Mentone), and Hwy 330/18 from the West (San Bernardino).

Weather – Big Bear boasts an average of 300 days of sunshine per year, and is often known to be clear and sunny even when clouds are covering the rest of the Southland. According to Weather.com, January is typically the coolest month, averaging 47° for the high and 21° for the low. July is typically the warmest month with daytime highs of 81° and nighttime lows of 41°. A typical winter season can bring more than 100″ of snowfall. Summers are mildly warm and dry with an ever present possibility of Summer mountain thunderstorms, especially later in the season. If you don’t mind a little snow, camping in Big Bear year around is available.

The Lake – Big Bear Lake is roughly eight miles long and one mile across at its widest point. It has over 22 miles of shoreline and is located at an elevation of 6,743 feet. For those who love to include water activities as part of their camping experience, the lake offers many, including fishing, boating, water-skiing, and para-sailing.

Big Bear Discovery Center – No camping trip in Big Bear should go without a visit to the Discovery Center. Each year, more than 250,000 people visit the center. Consider this the hub of “all things camping” in Big Bear. Located along the north shore of the lake, just east of Fawnskin, the Discovery Center provides a plethora of services such as Big Bear camping information, adventure passes, hiking and biking maps, forest road maps and permits, guided nature tours and interpretive programs, environmental education, and a nature-themed gift shop. Be sure to pick-up a Visitor guide from the center.

Outdoor Activities

Big Bear has nearly every type of outdoor activity imaginable from leisurely strolling through local shops in the Village, to boat trolling along the shores of the lake for trout, to downhill ski racing during the winter. One thing is for sure, you won’t run out of things to do when camping in Big Bear.

  • Hiking – Big Bear’s local mountains have hundreds of miles of hiking trails and offer easy family day hikes to more challenging backpacking treks. But beware, parts of Big Bear valley are considered high desert, especially the further east you travel, and can be hot and dry in the Summer months. Carry plenty of water and protect yourself from the effects of high-altitude sunlight. You may want to carry a portable water purifier, as well, since most of the local water in rivers and streams is considered non-potable.
  • Boating – The lake itself is what put Big Bear on the map and is a top visitor attraction. Boats of every type can be found on the lake, especially on those warmer summer days. More than half a dozen marinas offer boat, kayak, paddle-board, jet-ski, and canoe rentals. And, most offer pontoon boats that are very popular for fishing.
  • Fishing – Big Bear Lake is home to several species of fish including trout, large and small mouth bass, catfish, crappie, blue gill and sunfish. Each year in June, Big Bear holds the “Fishin’ for $50k Trout Derby”.  This two day event features several fish tagged with various prizes, one of which is worth $50,000 – fun for all ages. If you are new to the sport of fishing, Big Bear has several companies offering guided tours and boat chartering services.
  • Mountain Biking – Big Bear is synonymous with world class biking trails and several professional mountain bikers call Big Bear home because of this. You will find every level of difficulty from the easy North Shore trail to grueling alpine challenges. During the summer, bikers and hikers alike can ride Snow Summit’s famous Sky Chair to reach high altitude trails for breathtaking views and adrenalin rush bike rides.
  • Off-roading – There are numerous, well marked, roads and trails open for dirt bikes, ATV’s and OHV’s in Big Bear. If you don’t have an off-road vehicle, you might want to try a guided tour of the back country. Big Bear Off-Road Adventures offers several tours from 1.5 – 5 hours in length and throughout all four seasons.
  • Horseback riding – Located in Big Bear City, Baldwin Lake Stables & Petting Zoo offers year-round horseback riding tours for all ages. Explore Big Bear valley’s east end on one and two hour tours or longer three hour and half day ventures. And, don’t forget to stop at the petting zoo with the kids.

Types of Campgrounds

Big Bear has several types of public campgrounds: Family, Group, Yellow Post, and Dispersed. Most campgrounds open in May and close in October or November. Of the five campgrounds detailed below, Serrano and Holcomb Valley are open year round.

Both Family and Group campgrounds are developed campgrounds meaning they have services such as vault or flush toilets, fire rings, picnic tables, parking spaces and some have drinking water and showers.

Yellow Post and Dispersed are undeveloped areas where camping is allowed. Some will have fire rings and maybe a picnic table, but really nothing else as far as creature comforts are concerned.

  • Family – are campgrounds with sites for individuals or single families with up to 8 or 16 persons, dependent upon the campsite. There are six family campgrounds located in Big Bear. Below are detailed descriptions of five of the six most popular campgrounds.
  • Group – campgrounds can accommodate a larger group, typically from 25 to 40 people and up to eight vehicles. There are ten group campgrounds located around Big Bear. Your large group can have the entire campground to itself.
  • Yellow Post – are campsites for those who want to rough it, and are located in remote areas on back roads or trails where campfires are permitted so long as the fire stays within the designated fire ring and fire restrictions allow for it. Sites are available on a first-come, first-serve basis and require a California Campfire Permit (obtained at the local Ranger Station). Campsites typically have one picnic table and one fire ring. There are no restroom facilities and drinking water is not available. Beware, you may need a high clearance, four-wheel drive vehicle to get to some of these sites. Yellow Post campsites are limited to no more than 8 persons, and 2 vehicles at any one time. There are about a dozen Yellow Post campgrounds located around Big Bear.
  • Dispersed Area Camping – are undeveloped, wilderness areas where camping is allowed along back roads or trails. Wood or charcoal fires are never allowed, however propane or chemical fire is permitted so long as fire restrictions allow for it and you obtain a California Campfire Permit. Some wilderness areas require a Wilderness Permit as well. Like Yellow Post campsites, there are no restrooms or drinking water available. These campsite areas strictly pack-in, pack-out and are often used by overnight backpackers and those traveling on horseback and are not accessible by vehicles.

Here are the five most visited family campgrounds in and around Big Bear:

Big Pine Flat Campground

Big Pine Flat campground is located about 7.5 miles north of Big Bear lake, on Forest Road 3N14, just past where 3N16 crosses. It is located at an elevation of 6,820 feet. To get there: from Hwy 38, head north on Rim of the World Drive out of Fawskin. After the pavement ends, the road turns into Forest Road 3N14. Continue another 7 miles to the campground. Of the five campgrounds here, it is the furthest away from the lake and the longest drive on dirt roads to reach. Most sites within the campground are sunny with a few shadier spots. All roads and sites within the campground are dirt, but well marked. There is a beautiful little meadow within the campground as well as plenty of sagebrush and other small native plants. Drinking water is available on a limited basis, so RVs/trailers are encouraged to fill up before arriving to the campground. Campground is strictly first-come, first-serve only – no reservations.

Amenities – 19 single-family tent/RV sites, vault toilets, picnic tables, fire rings, campground host, drinking water. Campsite space/spur length is 30 feet.

Activities – Hiking, biking, off-roading, relaxing.

Best features – Secluded, drinking water available, beautiful grass meadow, on-site camp host.

Worst features – Few amenities, long drive on dirt road to campground, metal picnic tables get very hot on sunny days.

Hanna Flat Campground

Hanna Flat Campground is located just under 3 miles north of Big Bear lake off Forest Road 3N14. To get there: from Hwy 38, head north on Rim of the World Drive out of Fawskin. After the pavement ends, the road turns into Forest Road 3N14. Continue another 2.5 miles to the campground entrance on the left. The campground is located in a mature pine forest at 7,000 feet. Unfortunately, much of the surrounding forest was burned in the 2007 Butler II fire and evidence of it is prevalent. Still, the campground itself is well treed and many sites are quite shady. I find this campground to be less dry and more lush with vegetation than Holcomb Valley and Big Pine Flat campgrounds. And, all of the roads and campsites within the campground are paved. Half of the 88 total campsites require reservations and the other half are first-come, first-serve only. Most of the sites can accommodate either tent or small RV and a few are tent only. Reservations must be made at least 3 days in advance at Recreation.gov or ReserveAmerica.com.

Amenities – 88 total Tent/RV sites (44-reservation only, 44-FCFS only), vault toilets, picnic tables, fire rings, campground host, drinking water, trash collection, NO hookups.

Activities – Hiking & biking on nearby Gray’s Peak and Hanna Flat trails, relaxing, bird watching.

Best features – Well treed and shady, wooden picnic tables (metal tables get too hot), short drive to campground from Hwy 38.

Worst features – Some evidence of forest fire within campground, sites not suitable for RV’s over 26 feet (combined vehicle and tow unit).

Holcomb Valley Campground

Holcomb Valley campground is located about six miles North of Big Bear lake along Forest Road 3N16 in the historical Holcomb Valley. Although its name might lead you to believe it sits in a low valley, this campground is actually the highest in elevation (of the five reviewed here) at 7,400 feet. To get there: from Hwy 38, take Polique Canyon Road (2N09) North for about 5 miles where it joins 3N16. Veer right at the intersection and go another 3/4 mile to the campground. Although dirt Forest Roads are maintained for use by the U. S. Forest Service, conditions can vary dependent upon seasonal rain and snow. I personally found the roads to the campground to be good enough for my small Honda CR-V to drive on. I just drove a little slow, and kept an eye out for deeper crevices to avoid. According to the Big Bear Discovery Center, the campground fills up quickly on summer weekends, so camp during the week if possible. All roads and sites within the campground are dirt. The campground is well maintained and clean, but like Big Pine Flat campground, is mostly sunny and dry with a few shadier sites. I do appreciate the extra-tall fire rings as they hold plenty of wood for campfires. Unfortunately, some of the sites have all metal picnic tables. I’ve never been a fan of these because they sometimes get really hot during the day, making them tough to use for lunchtime meals. Holcomb Valley is strictly a first come, first serve only campground – no reservations.

Amenities – 19 single-family tent sites, vault toilets, picnic tables, fire rings, campground host (May – October), NO WATER. Each campsite allows a maximum of 8 people and 2 vehicles per campsite.

Activities – Hiking, biking, off-roading, relaxing. Holcomb Valley was once a popular gold mining area after Bill Holcomb, a grizzly bear hunter, discovered gold in the valley in 1860. Today, some of the historical buildings and cemeteries can be viewed along the “Gold Fever Trail”. This 12 mile long auto tour has a dozen stops along the way. Stop at the Discovery Center for information and a map.

Best features – Secluded, very tall fire-rings, open year-round dependent on road conditions, inexpensive.

Worst features – Few amenities, no water, parking space/spur length – 25 feet.

Pineknot Campground

Of the campgrounds reviewed here, Pineknot is the only one located South of Big Bear lake. Though difficult to find, it is well worth the effort. To get there: from Hwy 18, take Summit Drive south to Snow Summit Ski resort. Go into the resort parking lot, almost to the end and turn left into the VIP parking area. Go towards the end and make a gentle right, then left zig-zag. Follow the dirt Forest Service road (no signage that we could find) East, past the condos on the left. The campground entrance is a short distance down this road on the right. Pineknot is adjacent to Snow Summit Ski Resort and is an easy walk to the lifts. For incredible views or a thrilling alpine bike ride, take the Snow Summit Sky Chair to the top of the mountain – enjoy! The campground has 48 sites around two loops. It is densely forested with pine, fir and beautiful oak trees, which provide lots of shade. The roads and campsite parking spaces are all paved and well maintained. Smaller RV’s will have no problem finding level spots, however, because the campground is very hilly, tent only campers will find it harder to find large, flat dirt spaces. The friendly and very helpful campground hosts told us tent campers tend to favor the outside spots of the South loop. Two features we really like about this campground are: wooden picnic tables, and separate fire rings / grills – enjoy a fire and grill at the same time. Reservations are required and can be made at Recreation.gov or Reserveamerica.com.

Amenities – 48 total tent/RV campsites, flush toilets, campground host, drinking water, fire rings, firewood, grills, trash collection, NO hook-ups, closest dump station at Serrano campground.

Activities – Hiking, biking, birdwatching, boating, and fishing in nearby lake.

Best features – Very shady, close to Big Bear lake lake and the Snow Summit Sky Chair, separate grills and fire rings, flush toilets.

Worst features – Difficult to find, hilly can make it harder to find level tent spots.

Serrano Campground

Serrano campground is located on the North side of Big Bear Lake, along North Shore Lane at an elevation of 6,800 feet. Serrano is the largest campground in Big Bear, and from there, is an easy five minute walk to the lake shore via nearby “Meadows Edge” picnic area. But beware, if the lake elevation is low, sections of shoreline near Serrano can be very muddy – the kind of mud small kids find hard to resist, but can get stuck in, as mine have when they were younger. Of the five campgrounds shown, Serrano is the only one with showers. Serrano is well treed with a mix of sunny and shady sites. Fir, Pine and Oak trees, along with California sagebrush and wild grass, grow throughout much of the campground. All campsites and roads are paved. There are four loops: Summer Wind loop, Snowberry (RV) loop, Evening Star loop, and Lake View loop. If shade is what you seek, the Lake View loop is the way to go. And, the beautiful Alpine Pedal Path, popular amongst bike riders, walkers, joggers, and rollerbladers, meanders through the campground as it runs along the north shore of the lake (shown at the end of the video). Reservations are required and can be made at Recreation.gov or Reserveamerica.com or the Serrano Entrance station @ 909-866-8021.

Amenities – 132 total campsites (including 16 double sites), accessible flush toilets, campground host, drinking water, dump station, 29 electric (RV) hookup sites, fire rings, firewood, grills, picnic area, showers, tent pads.

Activities – Educational programs, interpretive programs, hiking, biking, boating, swimming, and fishing in nearby lake.

Best features – Paved pedal path, ample shade with mature trees-especially the lake loop, onsite hot showers, close to Big Bear lake lake and the Cougar Crest trail.

Worst features – Can get crowded and noisy on weekends, a little more pricey than the other campgrounds.

So, to sum it up:

  • Big Pine Flat Campground – rustic, sunny, limited water, dirt road
  • Hanna Flat Campground – shady, drinking water, reserve sites, short dirt road
  • Holcomb Valley Campground – rustic, sunny, no water, dirt road, wild West feel
  • Pineknot Campground – shady, hilly, RV – no hookup, paved roads, near Sky Chair
  • Serrano Campground – semi-shade, RV w/hookup, paved roads, close to lake

Big Bear is certainly an alpine oasis, easily accessible by those living in Southern California. It has every type of four-season outdoor activity available, and the campgrounds provide all styles of camping. Looking for primitive car camping? Stay in one of a dozen Yellow Post sites. Backpacking or on Horseback? There are plenty of undeveloped wilderness areas that allow that. Got a big group? Big Bear has ten group campgrounds to reserve just for your group. Wanting to do some family camping? Big Bear has several from primitive and secluded, to lakeside retreats with all the amenities. Grab your tent. Roll up the sleeping bags, or just put some gas in the RV and head on up to Big Bear – you’ll be glad you did!

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